St. Mary Magdalene: A Symbol of Hope and Mercy

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis has given Mary Magdalene a canonical rank equivalent to that of the apostles.

Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection from the dead, depicted by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov.
Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection from the dead, depicted by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. (photo: Public domain via Wikipedia)

The most important woman in human history was Mary, the Mother of God. No mere mortal has ever been so richly honored as she who bore God in her own flesh and truly named him her son.

Who was the second-most-important woman? It’s more debatable, but a strong case could be made for St. Mary Magdalene. This July 22, for the first time, Catholics will celebrate her feast.

By formally elevating her memorial to a feast, Pope Francis has given Mary Magdalene a canonical rank equivalent to that of the apostles. He has many times mentioned his wish that Catholics might reflect more deeply on the role of women in the Church. Now, with this change to the Roman calendar, he has taken a concrete step towards that goal.

For such an important person, it’s amazing how little we really know. She must have come from Magdala, a village in Galilee. That means she grew up along those same sandy shores where the apostles were called to be fishers of men.

From there, speculation begins. The Gospels are full of Marys, but we aren’t sure which was she. Was Mary Magdalene the woman caught in adultery, rescued by Jesus with his demand that a sinless person cast the first stone? Was she the sister of Martha, who sat by Christ’s feet to hear his teachings? Did she anoint him before his death, weeping and wiping his feet with her hair?

We do know this: St. Mary Magdalene came to Christ’s tomb on the third day, found it empty and ran to tell the apostles. Then, as she wept by the tomb, the Risen Christ came to her and addressed her by name (John 20). She was the first to see him alive. She was the first ever to share the Good News with the world.

It’s beautiful to reflect on the parallels: Both at his birth and at his rebirth, Jesus’ first intimate moments were shared with a woman named Mary.

In art and in literature, Mary Magdalene is often used to illustrate the miraculous, transcendent power of grace. She is the sinner redeemed and the weeping woman whose sorrow is transformed into joy. She reminds us of the darkness of near-dawn and the blinding light of redemption. She is a symbol of hope.

Still, her life remains mostly hidden, and this is a point of commonality with other women in the Gospels.

In some ways, this is perplexing, or even troubling. St. Mary Magdalene was clearly a significant person in Jesus’ life, but despite that, we’re not even certain which Gospel scenes depict her. We have no such uncertainties about St. Peter or St. Paul.

At the same time, it’s clear across the significant moments of Jesus’ life that women are regularly present. Though he didn’t assign them positions of ecclesial authority, Jesus surrounded himself with women, taught them and spoke to them with respect and love.

We see Christ’s mother at the Inn in Bethlehem and again at the wedding at Cana. Women listen as Jesus preaches, ask and receive miracles, and anoint his body both before and after death. Women sit by the foot of his cross. After the Resurrection, Jesus first appears to a woman.

Even as we rejoice in the prevalence of such scenes, we might feel disappointment that they are narrated so briefly. We are left yearning for more detail about Jesus’ interactions with women. That longing has, over the centuries, given rise to innumerable wild theories about Jesus’ relationship to Mary Magdalene, along with hosts of unanswered questions. Did she follow him from Galilee along with the apostles? Was she part of his inner circle of associates and friends? What did she do after Christ’s ascension?

The hiddenness feels like a deprivation. Perhaps especially for modern people, it seems maddening that we should not know.

We have an information-age conceit that all of our curiosities ought to be satisfied by studies and experiments. Someone should have transcripts of Christ’s conversations with Mary Magdalene. Someone should have taken a picture.

This dissatisfaction may also partly explain the perpetual allure of the Gnostic “gospels,” as well as smut conspiracy-theory fiction like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. We’re desperate for new faux discoveries that might feed our restless curiosity.

Hiddenness is not always a curse, however. Though the thirst for knowledge can be salutary, in this instance, we should recognize that the more important exploration is internal.

The Gospels have told us what we truly need to know about St. Mary Magdalene, but further spiritual treasures may be found through interior tools of reflection and prayer. We know that she was a Jewish woman from Galilee. She followed Jesus. He loved her.

In fact, the scene in the garden offers further food for reflection about the value of hiddenness. Upon meeting the Risen Christ, Mary doesn’t immediately recognize him. This seems odd. Presumably she knows what he looks like! Nevertheless, she initially mistakes him for the gardener. Only when he speaks her name does she see and understand.

This pattern repeats itself later on, with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13) and again with the disciples fishing in Galilee (John 21:4). It seems that our Resurrected Lord can hide himself in plain sight, as a gardener (another giver of life, though certainly on a much humbler scale), a fellow traveler along an ordinary road or a stranger on a beach. Even those who knew him well could be in their company without seeing, until the moment when he chose to reveal himself.

We cannot doubt that Our Lord chooses these moments of revelation with care. He knows our hearts and knows when each person is prepared truly to see.

Just as God conceals himself for our benefit, may he not hide other significant truths, as well? This may explain the hidden life of St. Mary Magdalene and the beautiful-but-brief glimpses we get of Christ’s relationships with women. Are we ready to view womanhood for what it truly is? Are we able to understand fully?

On this first-ever feast of St. Mary Magdalene, perhaps we might pray for patience as we accept God’s mystery and hiddenness.

At the same time, let us pray that we will be prepared for whatever he chooses to reveal. When he shows himself, and speaks our name, let us pray that we will answer as Mary did, with joy.

Rachel Lu, Ph.D., 

teaches philosophy at the

University of St. Thomas

in St. Paul, Minnesota.