By Claire Bischoff
Quick! Think of one thing that you know about Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene from kestrana (Creative Commons License)
Unfortunately, one of the things many people think that they know about Mary Magdalene is that she was a prostitute. As it turns out, this is a case of mistaken identity that goes back to the early church, when Mary of Magdala was confused with the sinful and unnamed woman from Luke 7 who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and then wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with oil. The identification of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute was an idea that went viral, as medieval artists and writers often portrayed her this way, weeping and asking forgiveness for her sins.
Interestingly, it was not until 1969 that the Vatican cleared up this misunderstanding, making a plain distinction between Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman from Luke 7. But the association still is perpetuated in popular culture, through movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar. As many of us have likely experienced in our own lives, it can be hard to shake others’ misperceptions of who we are.
What is perhaps most regrettable about this long-standing case of mistaken identity is that many Christians never get to know Mary Magdalene as what she truly is: an excellent model of faith.
We know from Luke 8 that Jesus exorcised demons from Mary Magdalene. Having been cured by Jesus, Mary Magdalene becomes one of his followers, along with some other women and the twelve apostles. We also know that Mary and these other women also “provided for them out of their resources,” that is, helped to finance Jesus’ ministry with their own money. Having had a personal and healing encounter with Jesus, Mary changes her life course, putting her earthly treasure where her heart is: with Jesus.
At the end of Jesus’ life, when the twelve apostles have abandoned Jesus, Mary is still there. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John all place Mary at the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. In his greatest moment of isolation and suffering, Mary does not abandon him. In fact, even after his death, Mary continues to follow Jesus. John 20:1 tell us that Mary went to the tomb where Jesus has been buried “early in the morning, while it was still dark.” It was she who first saw that the stone had been rolled back from the tomb.
Afraid that someone had stolen Jesus’ body, Mary runs to get the other apostles. Simon Peter and one other disciple run with her back to the tomb and observe the wrapping lying on the ground where Jesus’ body should have been. Astounded and not sure what to make of the situation, the disciples leave. But Mary stays, weeping. We can gather by her behavior—staying at the foot of the cross, going to visit Jesus’ tomb in the dark hours of the morning, weeping for Jesus—that Mary loved Jesus and was devoted to his mission.
Perhaps it is for this reason that Jesus makes his first post-resurrection appearance to Mary. As she is crying, two angels ask her why she is weeping. She tells them that someone has taken her Lord and she does not know where to find him. She then turns around and sees someone she mistakes for a gardener, who repeats the question of the angels, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Thinking this gardener may know something, Mary asks him where he has laid Jesus’ body.
It is at this point that Jesus reveals himself to Mary, simply saying her name out loud. Hearing her name, Mary recognizes Jesus for who he really is and says to him, “Rabbouni,” which means teacher. Because of what Jesus says next, we can gather that Mary embraced Jesus at seeing him again, for he tells her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary then does Jesus’ bidding, going to the disciples to announce to them that she has seen the Lord.
In the end, Mary becomes the apostle to the apostles, a name given to her by the early church. As the one to whom Jesus first appears post-resurrection, she is the first person charged to go spread the good news that Jesus is risen. Further, Jesus entrusts Mary with an important message. Theologian Teresa Okure explains that the expression Jesus uses—”my Father and your Father, my God and your God”—establishes a new relationship between God, Jesus, and his followers. As she writes, “[They] and Jesus now share the same parent or ground of being in God. They are in truth brothers and sisters of Jesus in God in much the same way as children relate who share the same mother and father.”* In other words, Mary is commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the Easter message that all followers of Jesus are children of God and brothers and sisters to one another.
What does the story of Mary Magdalene teach you about having faith in and following Jesus?
What does the Easter message that we are all children of God and brothers and sisters to each other mean to you? What does it mean about how we can approach God? What does it mean about how we are called to treat other human beings?
*Teresa Okure, “The Significance Today of Jesus’ Commission to Mary Magdalene,” International Review of Mission, vol. LXXXI, no. 322.