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The Way of BeautyThe Apostle to the Apostles

She followed him as a disciple.  She stood with his mother at the foot of the cross.  The burial too.  She announced the resurrection to the disciples. Nowhere in Scripture is she identified as a prostitute.  Not even as a sinful woman.  In Protestant faith-traditions, the Bahá’i, the Roman Catholic, and the Christen East, her feast is celebrated today.  This is St. Mary Magdalene, “the apostle to the apostles.”

The Name Mary in the New Testament

For Jews, the name Miryam or Miriam was and continues to be a popular female name.  Several other female names are variants of Miryam or Miriam: Mary, Maria, Marina, Maryka, Mara, Maura, Moira, and Maureen. The New Testament gives several women named Mary:  

Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus Christ;

Mary the mother of James and Joses (Mt 1,2,12,13,27,28; Mk 6,15,16; Lk 2,24; Jn 19);

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Mary Salome, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Mt 20, 27);

Mary, wife of Clopas (Mt 27, 28; Mk 15, 16; Lk 24, Jn 19);

Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. She sat at the Lord’s feet while Martha prepared the meal for him.  When Lazarus died, she rebuked Jesus for delaying his visit to him.  She anointed Jesus’ feet a week before his death (Mt 27,28; Mk 15,16; Lk 10; Jn 11, 19, 20);

Mary Magdalene was present during and after the Lord’s crucifixion and after his resurrection. Luke narrates that she was delivered of seven demons.  As a physician, he could have been describing a physical or nervous disorder and not a sinful life (Mt 23, 27, 28; Mk 15, 16; Lk 8, 23, 24; Jn 19, 20). The error that Magdalene was a sinful woman rests with Pope Gregory I, “the Great,” (6th c) who, in a homily, mistakenly referred to her as a scandalous woman.  Her title, “Apostle to the Apostles” is ascribed to St. Augustine of Hippo (4th-5thc).

A Composite Woman

Some stories about the women disciples named Mary were conflated and blended into one composite woman—Mary Magdalene. This occurred in the Roman Church.  It was never accepted in the Churches of the Christian East, Orthodox or Catholic.  They have always seen Magdalene as a disciple, and in fact, “the equal of the apostles.”  

More in The Way of Beauty

Mary Magdalene in the Christian East

Through the ages, the Christian East has taught that Mary Magdalene was a virtuous woman all her life, even before she began to follow the Lord.  The label of ‘penitent’ was never applied to her.  It is only the Christian East that has kept Mary Magdalene free from the confusion that still exists in western traditions. She followed Jesus to the very end, brought myrrh and other spices to anoint his body, and was the first to witness and announce his resurrection.  Thus, her title, “the equal of the apostles.”  

In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for this feast, the Kontakion, summarizes her role in salvation-history: “Let us all sing a hymn of praise and a special canticle to the disciple of Christ, Mary Magdalene, the first myrrh-bearing woman:  for she was a messenger of joy to the disciples.  Let us praise the God of All who lavished upon us and upon the world such a fountain of wonders and miracles.”

The Icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women

In 1931, an icon dating back to the third century was found by archeologists near the eastern border of Syria.  It depicts the women, led by Mary Magdalene, carrying torches and containers of costly myrrh and other precious ointments. The Myrrh-bearing Women are listed as:  Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Joses, Mary, the wife of Clopas, Mary and Martha of Bethany, sisters of Lazarus, Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the steward of Herod Antipas, Mary Salome, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and Susanna. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are also included in the icon for the important role they played at the time of Jesus’ death and burial. In the Christian East, the Third Sunday of Pascha (that is, the second Sunday after Easter) is called the “Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers.”  

Sadly, the art of the western world cannot undo the countless depictions of Magdalene suggesting her troubled past rather vividly . . . and erroneously.  

The Woman Who Loved Much

In the Johannine Gospel (20:11f), Mary returns from the empty tomb, but her emotions render a different verdict:  ‘The Lord’s body has been stolen.’  She finds herself in the garden where she encounters the gardener who is Jesus in disguise.  He addresses her as “Woman,” but she doesn’t recognize him, perhaps because she is blinded by anxiety.  ‘He has been taken out of my life,’ she fears.  She cannot bear to think of a future without his presence in her life.

Preoccupied, she bypasses his questions:  “Why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”
“Tell me where you have put him, and I will take him away,” she blurts out without tact.  Mary is nothing if not a lover.  And love can be tactless. Reason suggests that this undertaking might be impossible, but no, “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”    

“Mary!” That voice! She recognizes it, deep, penetrating, and most of all, it is the voice that consoles. The darkness of her facial expression is lifted, and it is transformed to radiance and joy. Her eyes sparkle, her bearing, calm, serene.

‘The Master is calling out to me!’ He’s depending on me to tell the others that he is risen.’  
She goes to announce the good news, the wonderful news. All is well in Mary’s life.  

She loved him so much; for this reason, she is a beautiful woman. This contemplation, “Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene in the Garden,” surely belongs to one of the most poignant in all of Scripture!

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The reflection below describes Magdalene and all other men and women whose lives are single-mindedly decided by love:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is,
than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.
What seizes your imagination will affect everything.  It will decide everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,  
how you spend your weekends, what you read,
whom you know, what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.”
Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the 28th General of the Society of Jesus
 

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