March 10, 2005
In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, Titian’s oil painting of Mary Magdalene is displayed. With disheveled hair, she raises her eyes in prayer as her hand prevents her loose clothes from revealing too much of her feminine attraction. At the bottom of the picture is a skull. It is the reminder of death. It is the warning to turn from sin. Magdalene is the sinner turned saint.
From the 12
th to the 16
th centuries, Mary Magdalene received great attention from the artist as the archetypal penitent. Donatello’s statue, Caravaggio’s canvas, Ruben’s painting and that of El Greco are just a few well-known examples of Magdalene’s popularity. Seen as a prostitute turned penitent, Mary is often depicted as weeping, her eyes red from too many tears. Hence the origin of our English word "maudlin," meaning "excessively or tearfully sentimental."
Some trace this image of Magdalene to a sermon given by Pope St. Gregory the Great in 591 A.D. The Pope identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who appears in Luke’s gospel immediately before the first mention of Magdalene (Lk 7:36-50). Whatever the origin of the artists’ view of Mary, the Biblical portrait of her is quite different.
Fourteen times the gospels name Magdalene. In eight of those fourteen places, Mary finds herself in the company of other women. Whenever the gospel writers provide a list of women and Magdalene is mentioned, she is always first on the list. An interesting fact to notice. For the evangelists do the same whenever they list the apostles. They always put Peter first. Clearly, Magdalene was as prominent among the women disciples of Jesus as Peter among the men.
Only once does Magdalene lose her position. When John tells us of the women standing at the foot of the cross, he names Magdalene after the Mother of Jesus (Jn 19:25). No one—woman or man—was more faithful, more devoted, more joined to Christ in his mission than the Virgin Mother.
Both Mark and Luke give three facts to put together a sketch of Mary (cf Mk15:40-43; 19:9 and Lk 8:1-3). First, she was from Magdala. That is why she is called Mary Magdalene. Magdala sat on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, midway between Herod’s capital at Tiberias and Jesus’ Galilean headquarters at Capernaum. It was an important fishing center. Its salted fish were exported throughout the Roman Empire. Almost up until the time of Jesus’ public ministry, this town had been an administrative center for Galilee. The town certainly provided opportunity for work and some wealth. Mary seems to have been a woman of some means.
Second, Mary Magdalene was a woman from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons. People of that time would measure the severity of a disease by the number of demons they said was causing it. Mary, therefore, had been seriously afflicted. Jesus healed her. And she never forgot his kindness. Delivered from the pain she suffered, she translates her gratitude into devotion, her strength into discipleship and her life into service. She models for us the direction of the Christian life. Once we are touched by Jesus and freed of the evil that affects us, our thankful hearts become more attached to the Lord and our lives are more selflessly at his disposition.
Third, Mary Magdalene was one of the women who took an active part in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus did not go it alone. He depended on others. He told Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19:5). He gladly accepted hospitality from Martha and Mary at Bethany (Lk 10:38-42). At times it may be all too easy to over spiritualize the gospel story. We need to remember the human element. We cannot forget those who took care of the many needs of Jesus’ mission that are not named in the gospel. When Jesus moved with his apostles from town to town, village to village, preaching and healing, he needed food and drink, clothing and shelter. All these required money. Along with Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna and several other women, Mary provided for these needs out of her own resources.
It is never easy to ask for money to continue the work of Jesus in the Church today. But as Jesus himself had physical needs to be cared for, so does His Body the Church. These unselfish women give without being asked. That is the heart of Christian charity. Luke remembers them for their generosity. And he reminds us of their role in the ministry of Jesus precisely because women play an important part in the life of the Church. The mother of John Mark opens her home for use of the early Church (Acts 1:13). Lydia, a woman of means in the purple-dye trade, opens her home to Paul at Philippi and Christianity crosses the threshold into Europe (Acts 16:15). Priscilla, along with her husband Aquilla, provides Paul with lodging in Corinth (Acts 18:1-4). When they move to Rome, their household becomes the home for the Church (Rm 16:3-5). Women continue to serve the needs of the Body of Christ. There are no second class citizens in the service of the Lord.
Mary Magdalene appears not to have been married. She travels with Jesus for about two years. This would hardly be possible if she had a family of her own. As a single woman, her service is undivided. She gives her full devotion, time and treasure, to Jesus. Unimpeded by family obligations, she follows Jesus to Golgotha. True love is faithful to the end.
Mark tells us, “There were some women watching from a distance. Among them was Mary of Magdala” (Mk 15:40). This is the only place women disciples appear publicly in his gospel. The men flee. The women remain. The men fear for themselves. The women grieve for Jesus. And Magdalene takes the lead. But she is “from a distance.” The last time Mark used this expression, he applied it to Peter. Peter follows Jesus after his arrest “from a distance (Mk 15:54). Hardly an act of courage! How brave Peter is, he quickly reveals by three times denying that he even knows the Lord. Mark paints a very dark portrait of discipleship at the cross. Like Peter, Mary fails.
At the moment of crucifixion, Magdalene is in the distance. It is the centurion who stands close. It is the centurion who sees Jesus die and confesses, “In truth, this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39). Mary remains silent. Even three days later. At the empty tomb, the angel tells Mary that Jesus has been raised from the dead. She hears the good news. She is too frightened to believe it. She tells no one. (Mk 16:1-8)
Both abandoning Jesus and failing to proclaim him are a breakdown in discipleship. Both men disciples and women disciples let the Lord down in his moment of suffering. When we sin, we join Peter in denying Jesus. When we sin grievously, we abandon him. When we keep silent at moments when the gospel should be spoken, when the Church should be defended, we join Mary Magdalene. And for all our tears, Jesus still dies alone.