Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mary of Magdala

(Image of Mary Magdalene by Fra Angelico, public domain)

Over the past twenty centuries of Church History, Mary Magdalene has often been confused with an unnamed Biblical woman. The Saint of the Day e-mail from sets the record straight on this day, the Feast of Mary Magdalene:

Except for the mother of Jesus, few women are more honored in the Bible than Mary Magdalene. Yet she could well be the patron of the slandered, since there has been a persistent legend in the Church that she is the unnamed sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7:36-50.

Most Scripture scholars today point out that there is no scriptural basis for confusing the two women. Mary Magdalene, that is, “of Magdala,” was the one from whom Christ cast out “seven demons” (Luke 8:2)—an indication, at the worst, of extreme demonic possession or, possibly, severe illness.

Father W.J. Harrington, O.P., writing in the New Catholic Commentary, says that “seven demons” “does not mean that Mary had lived an immoral life—a conclusion reached only by means of a mistaken identification with the anonymous woman of Luke 7:36.” Father Edward Mally, S.J., writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, agrees that she “is not...the same as the sinner of Luke 7:37, despite the later Western romantic tradition about her.”

Mary Magdalene was one of the many “who were assisting them [Jesus and the Twelve] out of their means.” She was one of those who stood by the cross of Jesus with his mother. And, of all the “official” witnesses that might have been chosen for the first awareness of the Resurrection, she was the one to whom that privilege was given.
Mary Magdalene has been a victim of mistaken identity for almost 20 centuries. Yet she would no doubt insist that it makes no difference. We are all sinners in need of the saving power of God, whether our sins have been lurid or not. More importantly, we are all, with her, “unofficial” witnesses of the Resurrection.
From Rev. Bosco Peters of Liturgy New Zealand we read of the possible evangelistic outreach of Mary of Magdala after the Ascension:

The Eastern tradition tells us that after the Ascension she journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to the court of Tiberius Caesar because of her high social standing. After describing how poorly Pilate had administered justice at Jesus’ trial, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead. To help explain His resurrection she picked up an egg from the dinner table. Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red. The egg turned red immediately.
Mary of Magdala has always fascinated me. Honored by the Lord as the first to see the resurrected Christ, as one who worshiped Him "in spirit and in truth" as no other disciple did, as a woman of means and intelligence who surrendered all she had in order to follow Him, Mary is central to the Gospel. The scene at the tomb has always struck me with its simplicity and power -- from the English Standard Version, John 20:

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she
stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
Although I have read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code twice now, I do not agree in the least with his premise that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus. In his novel Brown asserts that Da Vinci's The Last Supper portrays Mary at Jesus' side; however, examination in the light of art history demonstrates that the figure in dispute is not Mary at all but rather "the disciple Jesus loved," i.e., Saint John, often portrayed in art with long, brownish-red hair and beardless.

Dan Brown is correct in stating that Mary has been wrongly interpreted in Church History as a prostitute, yet he goes far too far in asserting that Mary was the wife of Christ, that He fathered her child, and that a line of Jesus' descendants exist to this day. Yes, Brown claims that his book is fiction, yet on a page before the story begins he asserts the "truth" of several aspects of his book. In doing so, I believe he oversteps the boundary of fiction, causing the firestorm of controversy that has enveloped his writing since.

But despite Dan Brown's books, we can celebrate the Scriptural Mary of Magdala's example of a strong woman who devotedly loved our Lord with all she had -- with her all her mind, heart, soul, strength, worldly goods, and entire life.

And thus we should do the same.

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