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Will the Real St. Mary Magdalene Please Stand Up?

July 22, 2016


The Church commemorates the witness of St. Mary Magdalene today. She has become a controversial figure, restructured by some as an avatar of feminist aspirations and then rebranded in the fiction of popular culture as the subject of conspiracy theories that are intended to reveal how dastardly forces have labored to keep the “real” Jesus hidden from view. Sigh. Will the real St. Mary Magdalene please stand up?

Confusion about the identity of Mary Magdalene antedates all the contemporary controversies. Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century conflated Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinful woman described in Luke 7:36-50, a mash-up that gained even more traction from a homily delivered by St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century in which the pontiff seems to accept the association of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman as well. Mary Magdalene is identified specifically in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke as a woman “from whom seven devils had gone out.” Yikes!

St. Gregory uses this terrifying description from the eighth chapter of Luke as a means of explicating what are known as the seven deadly sins, of which many people still think that lust is the most deadly and most interesting. Though the Gospel speaks of Mary Magdalene as a victim of diabolical possession, her predicament comes to be associated with willful acts of defiance against morality, particularly chastity. As such, the association of her with the unnamed sinful woman in the seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel and the woman caught in adultery in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John seems to stick and with it the enduring popular perception that Mary Magdalene was, prior to her conversion to Christ, a prostitute.

As if this wasn’t becoming confusing enough, the association also came to be that Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) and Mary Magdalene were the same person. In this mash-up of Marys, the story of the unnamed sinful woman in the seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel is combined with the story of the sister of Lazarus anointing the feet of the Lord Jesus at Bethany that is described in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of John. This results in Mary Magdalene being the sister of Martha and Lazarus. All this seems, at the very least, an honest mistake, rather than evidence of conspiracy, as the story of the anointings appear to be similar. But similar does not mean the same.

The Mary mash-up continued with the emergence of St. Mary of Egypt (344-421), also known as Mary of the Desert, whose personal narrative did include willful acts of sexual indiscretion, including the bawdy goal of making pilgrimage to Jerusalem so as to profit as a prostitute from the crowds of pilgrims. Her audacity was rewarded in the short term by a financial windfall and in the long term by her conversion from her sinful ways. Mary’s sorrow for her former way of life was exemplified by the extremity of her asceticism. In fact, another saint, Zosimas, who sought out her counsel in the desert, encountered in Mary a person he described as so transformed by rigorous penances as to be barely recognizable as human. However, many came to recognize her story as somehow being the same as Mary Magdalene, reinforcing popular perceptions that the saint had at one time been a sinner of a particularly lustful kind.

The conflation of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Egypt can perhaps be discerned in the hagiography of Mary Magdalene that records that the saint lived as a hermit in the wilds of what we now know as France. These stories explain how her relics came to be enshrined in this region, which were for centuries reverenced in the great cathedral church of Vézelay, a major pilgrimage destination of the Middle Ages. The shrine was despoiled during the French Revolution. A rival to the Magdalene shrine at Vézelay was established at Le Sainte Baum. This sacred destination included the skull of the saint, which can still be viewed in a magnificent reliquary that certainly leaves quite an impression and an experience of memento mori that one does not easily forget.

But I digress . . .

The Gospels give us specific details about Mary Magdalene that she had been held in the grip of malign spiritual forces, that she was counted among the earliest disciples of the Lord Jesus, that she witnessed his death and burial, and that she was perhaps the first person to glimpse his risen glory. She is charged with the task of proclaiming to the Apostles that Christ is risen from dead, a mission that earned her the designation of being “the apostle to the Apostles.” Some will make much of this, understanding her mission as justification for all sorts of ideological claims with their accompanying grievances. I think that St. Mary Magdalene’s witness simply highlights that the fundamental purpose of the Church’s evangelization project commences with testimony to the Resurrection and that all the faithful are charged with this mission. We might project the banners of our ideological preoccupations on Mary Magdalene, but the only banner she holds proclaims Christ’s victory over death.

Much ink has been spilled and voices raised in an attempt to shift popular perception of St. Mary Magdalene from being identified as a reformed prostitute. I raised the issue once with some folks, one of whom shared that she had always thought of Mary Magdalene as being like Belle Watling from Gone with the Wind. I responded by saying that I suppose there are worse kinds of people to be associated with.

In times so influenced by Nietzsche and the other masters of suspicion, the designation of St. Mary Magdalene as a prostitute has been transformed from an image of the power of Christ’s mercy to redeem and save, to a sinister plot to rob one of the disciples of Christ of her rightful status and role. In other words, Mary Magdalene was allowed to become a woman with a bad reputation because there was an interest in bringing her down a peg or two. However, apocryphal or not, the identification of Mary Magdalene as a sinner who found the greatest of all possible second chances in Christ’s offer of forgiveness endures. I don’t think the reason for this endurance is because someone who has power is trying to keep the power they have from someone else who wants it. I think it is because essential to not only the Gospel narrative but the personal narratives of those who believe in Christ is the truth that each of us is a sinner whom Christ loves enough to save.

Originally published by Word on Fire on July 22, 2016.